Sunday, February 06, 2005


play, feedback, ambiguity

I've starting reading a book that's been on my shelf a while now: Brian Sutton-Smith's Ambiguity of Play. I've long been interested in phenomenological issues (e.g., play, imagination, meaning), which factor in both design and daily life. I discovered Sutton-Smith, one of the leading authorities on play, did his earliest research, some fifty years ago, in New Zealand (together with Brazil a world capital of play), which gave me a new incentive to read the book.

Play has gained iconic status following the writing of Pat Kane and the new game-theorists. I am not so interested in play as the new panacea for dull work. What does fascinate me is how contradictory play is.

Consider the hugely popular notion of "Flow." A central aspect of Flow is having immediate feedback to see how one's performance is going. Even the driest writings on quality control mention the importance of immediate feedback, zeroing in on the target. Be it a tennis game, an X-box shoot-up, or a factory floor simulation, people enjoy fine tuning their maneuvers. Some less imaginative commentators suggest we should package all life experiences into joystick-controlled computer games to make "learning" fun.

As reflected in the title of his book, Sutton Smith explores the more paradoxical side of play: ambiguity. Sometimes feedback in an exploration isn't immediate. In complex systems, the feedback may show up later, sideways. Delayed, perplexing feedback is not a recipe for Flow as it is commonly understood. Indeed it can cause angst among many. In business this ambiguity is known as uncertainty. If one has a low tolerance for ambiguity, one doesn't have much fun. But others embrace ambiguity, uncertainty, the creative power of lady luck, and do have fun, despite the lack of instant, directed feedback (where is it is obvious how one is off-target.) All this seems like it could be related to discussions around fast and slow time. (If patient people had a higher tolerance of ambiguity, they might have a better appreciation of ambiguous play. But entrepreneurs are often ambiguity-tolerant and impatient; some have loads of fun, though others just seem frustrated.) But that discussion will have to wait for another day.

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